The Bronx gave Philippine President Benigno Aquino a warm welcome even as President Barack Obama shied away from a one-on-one meeting with the Philippine leader.
Aquino is in the United States to participate in the launch of Obama’s Open Government Partnership, a global program that aims to promote transparency and accountability in governance. The Philippines is one of the initiative’s eight founding members along with Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.
Aquino’s first stop for his three-day trip to New York and Washington was at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus, where he received an honorary degree from the school. Hundreds of students, dignitaries, and Filipino immigrants visited the university’s Keating Hall for a glimpse of the maroon-clad Philippine chief executive. Some Filipinos wore jackets emblazoned with the logo of Ateneo de Manila University—Aquino’s alma mater, a Jesuit university in Manila that has close ties to Fordham.
“Ateneo and Fordham together?” Fordham president Joseph McShane joked during the ceremony. “The world doesn’t stand a chance.” The room, which was packed with Filipinos and Americans, erupted in cheers.
Shane noted that Aquino closely followed the career of his late mother, former president Corazon “Cory” Aquino. In 1986, the university gave her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree shortly after the former housewife led the People Power Revolution that ousted strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino’s name will soon be engraved next to his mother’s in Fordham’s “Terrace of Presidents,” a set of stone steps that contains the names of all the world leaders giventhe same honor by the university.
However, “Noynoy,” as he is widely known, is not as popular as his parents were in their prime. His father, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., was assassinated in 1983 and died a martyr; his mother, on the other hand, was revered as a political icon until her death in 2009. Despite winning the 2010 elections in a landslide, Aquino’s poll ratings have dropped significantly just one year later. Critics have accused him of being bent on persecuting former government officials instead of focusing on critical issues such as the reproductive health bill, which would make contraception universally accessible in an impoverished country with a population of 94 million.
His public persona also suffered a beating due to regular media updates of his personal life. Photos with women—often decades younger than his 51 years—frequently made it to the front pages of newspapers. He is the country’s first bachelor president.
Amando Doronilla, an administration critic from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a national broadsheet, alleged that Aquino’s “stagnant rating in opinion polls and his scant economic record are bad news to Barack Obama… the US leader does not need another messenger of bad news visiting Washington.”
But poll ratings seemed to be the last thing on Aquino’s mind as he accepted Fordham’s highest honor. Smiling broadly at audience members who cheered him on loudly and gave him two standing ovations, he talked about good governance, democracy, and the role his parents played in Philippine history, particularly during the Marcos era. “People tend to bow to unlimited authority,” Aquino said. “But the laws of one man cannot prevail against the power of an unfettered conscience. Our social contract cannot tolerate anyone being above the law.”
Aquino added that by the end of his term in 2016, he hoped that “Filipino people will have grown accustomed to genuine public service and become so intolerant of corruption, that whether a saint or sinner succeeds me, no one will be able to roll back the tide of progress and good governance.”
Matthew Novick, a 19-year-old student who heads the Fordham Philippine-American Club, said, “He’s exactly what the Philippines needs—not corrupt, passionate, dedicated.”
Aquino’s popularity with Filipino-Americans was evident by the number of immigrants who came from all over the different boroughs just to get a glimpse of him. “I’m here because he’s my president and I respect him,” said Isel Garcia, 26, a student from the Bronx. “Honestly, I expected him to do more, but I thought his speech was encouraging. I’m sure the improvements will eventually come.”
Bobby Nuñez, a 41-year-old Filipino immigrant from Queens, agreed. “He’s very idealistic. People don’t believe him as much as they used to when he first won the election, but I still do.”
Maxine Cruzam, 21, a Fordham biology student, said it was an honor for her to sing both the American and Philippine national anthems during the ceremony. “He is such an icon,” she said. “I was born in the U.S., but his mother had done a lot for my parents when they were still living in the Philippines by giving them back democracy. I can’t make an educated decision about what he stands for, but I’m proud of how he represents the Philippines to the United States with his heritage.”
Not everyone was such a fan. Melissa Ortega, a 22-year-old who works with a nonprofit group in the Philippines, said that she expected more from Aquino, especially on the reproductive health bill. “We need a president with balls,” she said. “I wish he would stand up to the Catholic Church and step up for the people.”
Aquino will return to Manila after attending conferences for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.